Once again, I began an academic year by attending a small, focused conference–the best kind–in a fabulous place: Praia, capital of the Republic of Cabo Verde. The conference, organized by the International Geographical Union and the University of Cape Verde, brought scholars and planners together from 4 to 7 September 2019 to discuss local and urban governance (see conference program here), with a particular emphasis on Africa.
This is the third time I have contributed to the work of a Lisbon-based research network headed by Prof. Carlos Nunes Silva, of Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning, University of Lisbon (see these blog posts about the 2013 and 2017 conferences held in Lisbon). The network includes academics and practitioners and I thank Carlos for having brought us to Praia this time.
The governance issues we dealt with in Praia ranged from land tenure and dispute resolution to food security, health, housing, public transportation, cooperation between administrative units of varying levels, planning and urban management technologies, local environmental and heritage preservation, tourism and recreation, and much besides.
While scholars and planners who work on these issues are mostly in agreement on how to solve or resolve them, we are also trapped by the limitations of the systems we work within. Most of the problems faced by cities, in Africa as elsewhere, are ultimately caused by very unequal distributions of wealth and power, which are themselves the result of the global economic system, let’s call it globalized neo-liberal capitalism, we all have to live in (free flow of goods, services and capital across borders, but labor remains mostly fixed). Yet this prime cause is not to be challenged. It is as if urban planners were medical doctors treating symptoms but forbidden from attempting to cure the actual disease.
In our world, private property is sacrosanct. More than simply a resource, land (urban land, peri-urban land, agricultural land…) is a factor of production, while private property is the very foundation of capital creation and accumulation. The right of owners of property to use it for private benefit is the most fiercely protected “right” on the planet today, a right exercised by small landholders/individuals as well as by giant trans-national corporations (think “mineral rights” and “water rights”). In fact, this right trumps nearly every other right, including all-important human rights, such as women’s rights, the right to development, and the right to the city…
The world over, urban planners trying to address issues of housing, water, food, health, education and transportation must do so while accommodating the many powerful private interests (real-estate developers, energy companies, car manufacturers, tech firms) which actually dictate urban development policies. The right of these private interests to profit from their property over-rides the public good. Thus planners must work within what conference-goer Bill Freund called the “non-revolutionary possible.” In a world that has never produced so much capital wealth (owed largely by 0.01 % of the population) there’s always money available to build casinos. Yet it is always a struggle for cities to fund the infrastructure necessary to the well-being of the majority of citizens.
There is general agreement that cities are key to solving environmental problems. Cities, home to 57 % of the world’s population, consume about 70 % of its energy and thus produce 70 % of global CO2 emissions. Yet they occupying only 2 % of its land area. At the global scale, cities are so many point-sources of waste. Theoretically, pollution produced at an identifiable point (smoke stack, exhaust pipe, sewer main, mine) is relatively easy to stop; you intervene at that point. If we want the earth as we know it to survive the impacts of our industrial revolution–and I think that’s something we should all want–then creating environmentally sustainable cities is the place to start.